Solutions rarely offered to puzzles of archaeology

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Solutions rarely offered to puzzles of archaeology

September 19, 1996 
by Pamela Cressey

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An English tea saucer excavated from the Courthouse Site, 500 King Street block, appears as a puzzle with missing pieces. The challenge in archaeology is to link the artifacts with other data to solve the puzzle of the past. Courtesy, Alexandria Archaeology Collection.

When people ask about the reason archaeologists devote so many hours working with minute pieces of the past, they often reason that we must like putting together puzzles. I have never taken a survey of archaeologists to know if that is true or not. I think it is more likely that we are intrigued by moving information around in our minds to create a new whole, rather than only fitting together real fragments into a known object. Although I am thrilled by the assembly of a Chinese teapot from many broken sherds, I am motivated by my desire to "solve" the puzzle of historical lifeways. No picture comes on a box of this puzzle! It is a mind puzzle with infinite possibilities associated with the millions of lives, actions, and beliefs which left their imprint on Alexandria.

Last weekend my son and I had a wonderful time at an arts festival in Manassas. We wandered from booth to booth marveling at the creativity and workmanship displayed by so many people. Then a cozy nook beckoned us to come and set down and play handmade games. We matched our wits against the puzzles and games for more than hour. What held our interest? No solutions were offered, no picture displayed what a perfect completion looked like. All we had

were our minds as we worked historical and new games made by Kadon Enterprises of Pasadena, Maryland. The inventor and maker of the games truly loves challenging the mind with her mind puzzles. As we departed with our beautiful wood board and glass stones in their green fabric carrying case, we knew that we wanted to match wits many more times with each other and the mind game.

As I saw in the September 9th edition of the Washington Post, the Sloan’s auction of the Benjamin Banneker objects matched wits of many people and had a surprise ending. Last week I wrote about the Banneker objects which were destined for auction after residing with relatives of the Quaker Ellicott family since 1806. Money was raised to purchase the objects for the new Banneker Historical Park and Museum including a $50,000 grant from the Maryland Historical Trust. As you know, strategy plays a large part at an auction. But in this case, there was a wild card which changed the rules of the game. A person in a baseball cap, unknown to the supporters of the Banneker Museum, continually made extraordinary bids. He bid $6000 for a pair of candlesticks and molds and an unbelievable $32,500 for a drop-leaf table, which was expected to go for $10,000. Emanuel Freedman, a Washington investment banker, purchased almost all the objects for a total of $85,000 for use in the planned African American Civil War Memorial in the Shaw neighborhood. He intends for the objects to be used for the public.

Banneker himself enjoyed making and solving mathematical puzzles. Silvio Bedini’s biography includes puzzles, dreams and poems he Banneker wrote in his journal . If you want a challenge try this Benjamin Banneker mind game: A gentleman Sent his Servant with 100 [pounds] to buy 100 Cattle, with orders to give 5 [pounds] for each Bullock, 20 Shillings for cows, and one Shilling for each Sheep, the question is to know what number of each sort he brought to his master. Enjoy! I will give you the solution next week.